March 22, 2012

Twins demote $14.5 million flop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Triple-A

This time last spring there was genuine excitement surrounding Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but one year, one broken leg, and 68 terrible games later the Twins demoted their $14.5 million investment to Triple-A. Nishioka was a colossal failure and reportedly showed no signs of improvement early in camp, but I'm still surprised that the Twins demoted him as part of the second round of cuts and did so without an obvious in-house utility infielder alternative.

Expectations for Nishioka were inflated by winning the Japanese batting title in 2010 with a .346 average, but that was fueled by an unsustainable .395 mark on balls in play and his prior track record wasn't nearly as impressive. With that said, based on his career numbers my "optimistic" projection for Nishioka was .275/.335/.375 and as a 26-year-old Gold Glove winner at both shortstop and second base he seemed likely to be a mediocre regular at worst.

Instead he was simply the worst, hitting .226/.278/.249 with horrible defense that included no idea how to turn a double play as a second baseman and not enough arm strength to make routine plays as a shortstop. In retrospect it's hard to fathom how the Twins could have scouted him extensively and concluded that he was worth $14.5 million, and that mistake was compounded by trading J.J. Hardy for pennies on the dollar to make room for Nishioka.

In addition to a fluky batting average Nishioka's lack of power, questionable arm strength, and the fact that Kaz Matsui was an awful shortstop despite winning multiple Gold Glove awards in Japan were all obvious red flags for his transition to the majors. However, at the time my problem with the Hardy-for-Nishioka swap was far more about misguidedly dumping Hardy than about signing Nishioka to what seemed like a fairly reasonable, albeit risky, deal.

Of course, those decisions can't be undone and the $14.5 million is a sunk cost, so sending Nishioka to the minors makes sense whether the Twins think he still has a chance to be a useful role player or they simply don't want anything to do with him. Either way he'll get plenty of playing time at various positions in Rochester while making $3 million and the Twins owe him another $3 million for 2013, plus a $250,000 buyout of a $4 million option for 2014.

As for who'll take Nishioka's place on the roster, assuming the Twins carry 12 pitchers that leaves just four bench spots and three of them are reserved for Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes, and either Drew Butera or J.R. Towles. Plouffe played shortstop for seven seasons in the minors, but was so bad there as a rookie that the Twins are committed to using him strictly in the outfield. Hughes is a poor defender at second base who has no business at shortstop.

All of which means the Twins need someone capable of playing shortstop for that final bench spot, although it's possible they could treat starting second baseman Alexi Casilla as the de facto backup shortstop behind Jamey Carroll and then use Hughes at second base whenever Casilla is needed at shortstop. That could work, at least in the short term, although when your starting shortstop is 38 years old having a true backup on the roster seems like a better idea.

Brian Dozier is the only decent upper-minors middle infield prospect in the entire system and the Twins haven't been shy about talking him up, but he's yet to play an inning at Triple-A and has just 78 games above Single-A. Dozier is already old for a prospect at 25, so furthering his development and suppressing his service time perhaps aren't as important as usual, but it would certainly be very uncharacteristic for the Twins to call him up to fill a part-time role.

Instead the better plan would be to let Dozier spend two months at Triple-A while the Twins find out if they're contenders and give the final bench spot to a true utility infielder who can handle shortstop defensively and is more suited for sporadic playing time as a backup. Ideally the Twins should have a few in-house options who fit that description, but Pedro Florimon and Michael Hollimon are probably the closest fits and neither warrants a big-league job.

Typically near the end of spring training teams try to pass players through waivers while setting their 40-man roster and making decisions on non-roster invitees, so the Twins should be able to snag a decent utility man off waivers or acquire one in a minor trade. It's not a role that requires much beyond a solid glove, so I'd let a a non-prospect keep the spot warm while Dozier hopefully thrives in Rochester, where his double-play partner would be ... Nishioka.

September 26, 2011

Why can’t the Twins find any infielders who can hit?

One of the constants throughout my 10 seasons of blogging about the Twins is their inability to develop or acquire middle infielders who can hit. I started blogging in 2002, when the Twins hadn't been to the postseason in a decade, Ron Gardenhire was a rookie manager, and the double-play duo was Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas. In the 10 years since then they've had 10 different players start at least 100 games at shortstop or second base:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          430     .652
Cristian Guzman     423     .684
Luis Rivas          359     .686
Alexi Casilla       335     .643
Jason Bartlett      301     .706
Luis Castillo       227     .720
Brendan Harris      160     .666
Orlando Hudson      124     .712
Juan Castro         117     .599
Matt Tolbert        113     .570

Yuck.

During that 10-season span the average American League middle infielder has posted a .730 OPS, yet all 10 of the middle infielders to start at least 100 games for the Twins posted an OPS below .730. In fact, each of the Twins' four most-used middle infielders had an OPS below .690 and the 10-player group combined for a .670 OPS that's 60 points below the league average, with the high-water mark being Luis Castillo's mediocre .720 OPS from 2006 to mid-2007.

Here's how Twins shortstops have ranked in OPS for the 14-team league each year:

YEAR     RANK     SHORTSTOPS
2002     12th     Guzman, Hocking
2003      8th     Guzman, Hocking, Gomez
2004     11th     Guzman, Punto
2005     14th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2006      8th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2007     10th     Bartlett, Punto
2008     12th     Punto, Harris, Everett
2009      9th     Cabrera, Punto, Harris
2010      6th     Hardy, Punto, Casilla
2011     13th     Nishioka, Casilla, Plouffe, Tolbert

On average during the past 10 seasons Twins shortstops have ranked 10th among AL teams in OPS and the only time they've finished higher than the middle of the pack was last season, when J.J. Hardy's decent .714 OPS helped them rise to sixth and they immediately jettisoned him. Twins shortstops have been above average offensively once in 10 years and even then it was just barely, whereas they've been 10th or worse six times and 12th or worse four times.

And now here's the same list, but with Twins second basemen:

YEAR     RANK     SECOND BASEMEN
2002      9th     Rivas, Hocking, Canizaro
2003     12th     Rivas, Hocking, Gomez
2004      7th     Rivas, Cuddyer
2005     12th     Punto, Rivas, Rodriguez, Boone
2006      9th     Castillo, Punto
2007     13th     Castillo, Casilla, Punto
2008     10th     Casilla, Harris, Punto
2009     14th     Casilla, Punto, Tolbert
2010      9th     Hudson, Casilla, Tolbert
2011     13th     Casilla, Hughes, Tolbert, Cuddyer

Believe it or not the Twins' second basemen have actually been slightly worse than the woeful shortstops, ranking 11th among AL teams in OPS on average during the past 10 seasons and never placing higher than seventh. In those 10 years they've been ninth or worse nine times and 12th or worse five times. And this year both the Twins' shortstops and second basemen are second-to-last among AL teams in OPS.

It's also worth noting that they haven't been any better at finding productive third basemen, at least since Corey Koskie left as a free agent. Koskie was the Twins' starting third baseman from 2000-2004 and on average during those five seasons their OPS at third base ranked fifth in the league. Koskie signed with the Blue Jays after the 2004 season and since then here's how Twins third basemen have ranked in OPS among AL teams:

YEAR     RANK     THIRD BASEMEN
2005     10th     Cuddyer, Rodriguez, Tiffee, Castro
2006     13th     Punto, Batista, Rodriguez
2007     14th     Punto, Rodriguez, Buscher
2008     11th     Buscher, Lamb, Harris
2009     11th     Crede, Harris, Buscher, Tolbert
2010     10th     Valencia, Punto, Tolbert
2011      9th     Valencia, Hughes

Actually that's even uglier than the middle-infield picture. This year is the first time since Koskie left that Twins third basemen have ranked better than 10th in the league in OPS and they're still below average in ninth place. Koskie started 762 total games at third base for the Twins, producing an .839 OPS. In the seven seasons since his departure they've started six different players at least 75 times at third base and none of them have cracked a .750 OPS:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          246     .653
Danny Valencia      222     .724
Michael Cuddyer     107     .741
Brian Buscher       106     .702
Brendan Harris       86     .688
Joe Crede            84     .729

If you combine their shortstops from 2002-2011, second basemen from 2002-2011, and third basemen from 2005-2011 that's 27 total years of infielders. And in those 27 positional years the Twins have had an above average OPS twice (shortstops in 2010 and second basemen in 2004) and have never finished higher than sixth in the league while ranking 10th or worse 18 times. All of which is a very long way of saying they can't find any infielders who can hit.

As for why they can't find any infielders who can hit ... well, there are a few theories that seem to make sense. First and foremost is that the Twins clearly focus on speed and defense more than most teams. Whether they do so successfully is up for debate, but when Nick Punto has the team's most middle-infield starts since 2002 and most third base starts since 2005 glove work and running fast are obviously priorities.

There are some exceptions, of course, particularly at third base, but even in the cases where the Twins attempted to sacrifice defense for offense they did so with non-sluggers. Third base has long been a power-hitting position and during the past 15-20 years more and more teams have viewed second base and to a lesser extent shortstop as a spot for guys with the power for 20-plus homers, but the Twins have never really come around to that approach.

Their shortstops and second basemen have almost always been diminutive players with a low strikeout rate, above-average speed, and below-average power, and that skill set rarely adds up to strong offensive production. They've been more willing to stray from that player type at third base in guys like Tony Batista, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and now Danny Valencia, but in none of those cases was there upside beyond solid regular.

As a tall, slow shortstop with 25-homer power Hardy is perhaps the most obvious example of the Twins going against their usual infield focus and not surprisingly they tired of him after just one year despite the highest OPS by a Twins shortstop since Guzman in 2001. Hardy's injuries were a big factor, but so was Gardenhire's desire to add speed to the infield. And now Hardy has 30 homers and an .800 OPS for the Orioles while Twins shortstops are back to not hitting.

Hardy and his .750 career OPS were sent packing because of injuries and lack of speed, while Valencia and his .735 career OPS are entrenched in the doghouse because of shaky defense and a general lack of awareness. Valencia is hardly a long-term building block, but he's a solid all-around player with a better bat than most Twins third basemen since Koskie and has plenty of value while earning the minimum salary.

It'll be interesting to see if the Twins ditch Valencia a year after ditching Hardy because neither player fits the organization's preferred infield mold and there's little indication they've realized how ineffective that mold is at finding competent hitters. Trevor Plouffe might be another test case, because in addition to possessing 20-homer power he's bigger, slower, and considerably less reliable defensively than the Twins like.

Trading away Hardy and replacing him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka showed a discouraging inability to properly evaluate those two players, but it also speaks to an overall approach to acquiring and developing infielders that's resulted in a decade of consistently awful offensive production from second base, shortstop, and third base. It's long past time to find infielders who can hit, but it remains to be seen if the Twins are capable of learning from mistakes and adapting.

September 19, 2011

Twins Notes: Pneumonia, concussions, obliques, shortstops, and defense

Joe Mauer's mess of a season came to a premature end Friday as the Twins announced that he'd be shut down for the final two weeks after being diagnosed with mild pneumonia. Mauer missed six games last month with what the Twins called an upper respiratory infection, leading to even more criticism and mockery from fans and media members, but as has too often been the case with various players and injuries this year the team's initial diagnosis proved lacking.

Mauer played through the pneumonia after returning to the lineup on August 30, starting 12 of the next 14 games while hitting .289/.438/.500 with two homers and nine walks. Had another hitter produced that well playing through what turned out to be pneumonia it would likely be used as an example of toughness, but the narrative surrounding Mauer has been established in such a way that potential positives are simply ignored and negatives are magnified.

He finishes the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract batting .287/.360/.368 in 82 games, which Fan Graphs calculates as worth $7.7 million to the Twins. When you produce $8 million in value and earn $23 million in salary that's a recipe for deserved criticism, but Mauer certainly isn't the first star player to have a poor, injury wrecked season in the midst of a huge contract and the level of fan vitriol and venomous media coverage has reached absurd levels.

Based on those same Fan Graphs calculations Mauer provided the Twins with $137.7 million in value from 2004-2010 while earning $34 million in salary. That speaks mostly to the nature of MLB's pre-free agency system of team control, but it also puts his 2011 performance and pay in a larger context. For the first seven seasons of Mauer's career the Twins got $4 in value for every $1 they paid him and unfortunately in his eighth season those numbers were reversed.

Mauer obviously needs to get healthy, stay healthy, and work extremely hard this offseason to return to where he was prior to undergoing knee surgery in December. Whether he's capable of doing that and specifically whether he's capable of doing that as a full-time catcher is a big question mark that looms over the Twins' future, but hopefully Mauer hitting .312/.390/.405 in 66 games and 269 plate appearances since mid-June shows a glimpse of better days ahead.

• Sadly there have been no such glimpses from Justin Morneau and Denard Span as they try to recover from concussions. Span initially suffered his brain injury on June 3, pushed himself to return two months later despite continued symptoms, and went right back on the disabled list after performing horribly for nine games. Span still isn't symptom-free four months after his concussion and Morneau is seemingly back to square one 15 months after his concussion.

Morneau, unlike Span, was able to return to the lineup for a long stretch, but looked nothing like his usual self before being placed on the DL with a wrist injury in June. It turned out the wrist injury was the least of Morneau's problems, as he underwent neck surgery while on the DL, re-triggered the concussion symptoms on a fairly routine lunging play in late August, and is now having foot and knee operations. He's played just 69 of the last 230 games, hitting .227.

This offseason will be filled with crucial decisions for the Twins as they try to bounce back from arguably the worst season in team history, but no moves would have a more significant impact than their three best long-term building blocks getting healthy and in the case of Morneau and Span there's really nothing that can be done beyond waiting, monitoring, and hoping. Morneau in particular seems to be nearing the stage where talk of retirement could become very real.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's season is also over, as the Twins shut him down with an oblique strain. From breaking his leg in the sixth game to being overmatched both offensively and defensively Nishioka's first season couldn't have gone much worse. He hit .226/.278/.249 in 68 games with three times as many strikeouts as walks, stole two bases and was thrown out four times, and Ultimate Zone Rating pegged him as 7.2 runs below average defensively in only 508 innings.

In addition to the $5 million posting fee the Twins paid for exclusive negotiating rights Nishioka is owed $3 million in 2012 and 2013, so he'll remain in the team's plans unless he decides to follow Kenji Johjima's footsteps and voluntarily go back to Japan. However, according to Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN the Twins are contractually able to demote Nishioka to the minors and at the very least he'll have to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster next season.

• For a while it looked like Trevor Plouffe would be the obvious answer to unseat Nishioka at shortstop in 2012, but he's resumed struggling defensively and has hit just .220/.294/.369 in 71 games. Plouffe created some optimism by crushing Triple-A pitching for 50 games and with seven homers and 13 doubles in 241 at-bats he's maintained much of the power he displayed in Rochester, but hitting .220 with 61 strikeouts and 22 walks looks like the pre-2011 version.

His breakout at Triple-A was impressive enough that he warrants an extended chance in some kind of role next season, but it's difficult to imagine the Twins feeling comfortable with Plouffe and Nishioka atop their shortstop depth chart next spring. Plouffe is a 25-year-old with shaky defensive skills and a .262/.316/.451 mark in 1,400 plate appearances at Triple-A, so slotting him into a utility role with an emphasis on facing left-handed pitching makes the most sense.

• As a group Twins shortstops are second-worst in baseball defensively with a combined 10.6 runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, with Nishioka (59), Plouffe (34), Alexi Casilla (36), and Matt Tolbert (22) each getting at least 20 starts there. UZR also pegs Twins second basemen at 5.9 runs below average and third basemen at 5.7 runs below average, so Ron Gardenhire is predictably determined to shore up the infield for next season:

We're going to definitely do a lot of research and a lot of digging on what's going to make us better in the infield. There's going to be a lot of people in camp, we hope, that are going to all push each other, and we're going to come out with a good defense. If you've got guys that pitch to contact, and you don't catch the ball, you're in trouble. We have to catch the ball. We have to cover more ground, the whole package. That's going to be huge.

Regardless of what you think of the wisdom behind building staffs full of pitch-to-contact arms, Gardenhire is absolutely correct that it places even more emphasis than usual on the defense converting all those extra balls in play into outs. Twins pitchers have the fewest strikeouts in baseball and it isn't even close, as they trail the next-worst team by 10 percent and the MLB leaders by 30 percent. They're also dead last in turning balls in play into outs at 69.8 percent.

Gardenhire has already hinted pretty strongly that Casilla will be the starting second baseman next year, so connecting the dots he's clearly viewing shortstop and third base as the areas to improve. All of which is more reason to believe the Twins won't go into 2012 with Plouffe and Nishioka as their top two shortstop options and adds to the speculation that Danny Valencia will be shopped because his place in Gardenhire's doghouse is due largely to defensive lapses.

This week's content is sponsored by Jane Gallop's new book, "The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing In Time."

June 30, 2011

Twins Notes: The Good, The Bad, and The Hairy

Scott Baker was excellent again yesterday afternoon, allowing zero or one run for the third time in four starts by shutting out the Dodgers for 7.1 innings. Baker racked up nine strikeouts without a walk until issuing a free pass to the final batter he faced, finishing June with a 1.46 ERA in six starts. And not only does his 3.15 ERA overall this season lead the team by a wide margin, Johan Santana is the only Twins starter with a lower ERA since Kevin Tapani in 1991.

Here are the best single-season ERAs posted by Twins starters during that 20-year span:

                   ERA     YEAR
Johan Santana     2.61     2004
Johan Santana     2.77     2006
Johan Santana     2.87     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.15     2011
Joe Mays          3.16     2001
John Smiley       3.21     1992
Johan Santana     3.33     2007
Scott Erickson    3.40     1992
Carlos Silva      3.44     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.45     2008

Two things stand out on the above list. One is that Santana was really amazing, posting four of their top seven marks since 1991. Two is that Baker is really underrated, joining Santana as the only starters to crack the top 10 twice. And unlike, say, Joe Mays in 2001, he isn't doing it with smoke and mirrors, as Baker ranks eighth among AL starters with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings and seventh in the league with a 101-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 frames.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been considerably less impressive, struggling so much on both sides of the ball that e-mails and comments are beginning to pile up from people wondering exactly what the Twins saw in him that was worth a $14 million investment. Nishioka has batted just .197/.254/.252 in 19 games, showing little power with zero homers and three total extra-base hits in 66 at-bats and terrible strike-zone control with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And as awful as Nishioka's hitting has been his defense might be even worse or at least more discouraging given his reputation as a standout defender with Gold Glove awards at shortstop and second base in Japan. Kaz Matsui showed previously that defensive accolades in Japan don't necessarily transfer to America, proving to be a sub par shortstop despite winning a total of four Gold Glove awards there before signing with the Mets in 2004.

I'm certainly not ready to conclude that Nishioka will follow that same fate after just 19 games, but his arm strength and hands haven't looked nearly reliable enough to be a significant asset at shortstop and moving back to second base would be a scary proposition after breaking his fibula in part due to his lack of comfort with hard-sliding runners around the bag. Joe Mauer is struggling on both sides of the ball too, but he also has a long track record of MVP-level play.

Nishioka had a strong career in Japan, but his MLB projections based on that track record were anything but jaw-dropping. I pegged him for .275/.335/.375 while noting the combination of a high strikeout rate and less power than any previous Japanese imports. He's certainly capable of adjusting and improving at the plate with experience, but it worries me that his glove might not be good enough to make him a big asset even if he reaches the .275/.335/.375 projection.

J.J. Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11 homers, 13 doubles, and one error in 50 games for the Orioles and has started contract extension talks to stay in Baltimore.

• Twins top prospect Kyle Gibson has been named to the United States' roster for the Futures Game during the All-Star break, while preseason No. 8 prospect Liam Hendriks was picked for the World team. I'm always more interested in the Futures Game than the actual All-Star game and alumni of the prospect showcase include Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Luke Hughes.

Gibson has an ugly win-loss record thanks to terrible run support, but he's pitched very well at Triple-A as a 23-year-old with a 3.87 ERA and 83-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 innings. He has the International League's third-highest ground-ball rate at 57 percent and ranks sixth in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio, which adds up to a 3.25 FIP that's fourth-best in the league. He continues to look like a future No. 2 starter and is nearly ready.

Hendriks has followed a breakout 2010 performance between two levels of Single-A by proving it was no fluke with a 2.71 ERA and 74-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings at Double-A as a 22-year-old. He's allowed just four homers and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Eastern League, posting a 2.77 FIP that also ranks third-best. If there was a midseason version of my top 40 prospect list the Australian right-hander would join Gibson in the top five.

• Speaking of prospects, Trevor Plouffe has been destroying Triple-A pitching since being sent back down to Rochester four weeks ago and is now hitting .295/.365/.610 with 11 homers in 38 games overall. The bad news is that he's still a career .259/.312/.443 hitter in 323 games at Triple-A and the Twins were so put off by his defense at shortstop that they've been giving him starts in right field. I'm skeptical, but when the alternative is Matt Tolbert, why not?

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a nice job mixing reporting and stats for an article about Glen Perkins' success in the bullpen, examining his increased velocity and adjustment to a role change spurred by injuries and struggles as a starter. Perkins has never thrown this well before regardless of role and struck out right-handed-hitting MVP front-runner Matt Kemp in a dominant outing yesterday. He has a 1.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings.

• Old friend Matthew LeCroy managed the All-Star game at high Single-A last week.

• Against all odds, the man in this picture is not me:

As far as you know, at least.

This week's content is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs.

June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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